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After 21 years as a piano trio — the first 13 albums with pianist Ethan Iverson, then the last two with Orrin Evans — The Bad Plus is now a pianoless quartet with the addition of electric guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed. What hasn’t changed, along with drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson remaining at the helm, is the group’s distinctive approach to collective interplay.
King wrote five of the eight tracks, Anderson the remaining three. Their compositions provide a healthy contrast: There’s a dark chamber-like atmosphere to Anderson’s compositions, while King’s mainly tend toward the hard-edged jazz-rock side. The diversity of material allows the group to deliver an absorbing mix of power and finesse.
On Anderson’s gorgeously minimalistic “Motivations II,” Monder’s effects-laden chords provide an ethereal atmosphere under Speed’s plaintive melodic statement. King’s “Sun Wall” kicks things into a higher gear in both intensity and complexity, thanks to the jagged melody, King’s frenetic drumming and Monder’s crunchy guitar lines. The addition of Monder brings out the heavy side of King’s compositions, best exemplified by the rock anthem groove of “Not Even Close to Far Off” and the guitarist’s distorted shredding on “Sick Fire.” (As ever, Bad Plus titles are clever and evocative). But King also shows off his mellower side on “Stygian Pools” and “The Dandy,” both guided by pensive melodies and King’s understated syncopation.
Being flexible is nothing new for Anderson and King. After all, The Bad Plus welcomed singer Wendy Lewis and saxophonist Joshua Redman into the fold on previous records. That’s why even with a major shakeup, the group’s sense of serious fun and uniquely modernist vibe remain intact. The new format is a winner, and it frees the group to explore new approaches. But fear not, it’s still The Bad Plus. —John Frederick Moore